Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Got Back to Yuksom! Also, Stupas!

We woke up early because we both wanted to go down, me and the porter. I got up first, I guess, and then we located each other in the not muchness of Tsokha, and got our kit together. We exchanged eye contact with each other - it was going to be an 11 mile day, after all, albeit downhill, but the scary kind of downhill. And then we set off.

And down it was, about as soon as we started off from Tsokha. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, and the landscape looked very different then it had on the way up - clear and dry, and almost dusty in places, and the mud slowly hardening. It was harder going down then up, at least on the mind, and we both were on constnat alert for ankle twists. A twisted ankle could make life exceptionally difficult up here. We descended through the high altitude rhoddendron and then we crossed into the cloud jungle, and then down more, almost back into the tropical jungle proper.

The Tenzing Norgay Mountaineering Institute, named after the world-famous Sherpa mountaineer, happens to have a house up here, and we went by it. We stopped for a second to look - I looked down the hill and saw about forty ruggedly handsome young mountaineering students, of all manner of races and nationalities, looking up at me in an extremely friendly way. A couple of them waved.

I had a temporary debate about going down.

Well. Showers.

We kept moving.

The rest of the 11 mile trek down was a bit of a blur, mainly because we were going very fast indeed and we were very focused, or at least I was, and I assume he was as well. We kept on passing by sweaty and dedicated looking Mountaineering Institute students, laboring uphill and carrying very big packs. We would exchange pleasantries. I was glad there were a healthy number of women among them. They are doing a good job of getting young Indians and Nepalis - especially Sherpas - training to be guides up here. They maintain a base camp at Kanchenzonga as well. I'd visit the headquarters in Darjeeling the next week.

Still, I was going so fast and was so focused on the trail that I failed to notice something fairly important - in that my big toenail was Not Happy, really really unhappy. Irt was being squashed one way or another and every single rock I jumped onto, it sort of hurt, but in a low level way I found easy to ignore. This would come back to haunt me.

The raininess of the past few days had brought a bunch of small waterfalls and streams to life along the trail, and they were refreshing as hell to run through. Of course, we had re-entered the Realm of the Leech, but at least they never bothered me much. (Only got a couple this go-round!)

We were getting closer - I could just spot the not-much buildings of Yuksom. We paused in the small structure where we had had lunch that first day. The porter and I wolfishly shared a fancy Lindt chocolate bar - Tiramisu flavored - Kiran had gifted me, glugged down some water, caught our breaths. Then we were off again.

The miles went fast,a dn we encountered very few animal trains (which sped us up) and a coiuple of middle aged tourists (to exchange pleasantries with), and I admired the terrifying Indiana Jones suspension bridges again. And then there was a little picnic house, for people from town to use when they wanted to take a little walk intot he woods, then some terraced cornfields, with women holding machetes working in them, and laughing with each other, and then a girl steering but not riding a bike, and looking at us with mild interest. We were back.

We walked through town slowly - the end in sight - and the porter stopped to talk to friends, and I walked with rather weightless legs. It was odd to go slow. We'd made 11 miles in about five hours. It wasn't half-bad, even if was downhill. I went to the hotel and banged on the door a bit until the owner came out. He looked at me curiously. "You are back early," he said.
"We started this morning from Tsokha,"I said, as I laid down my bag. I was starving. Food before shower, I concluded. Damn the torpedoes.
"Very very early," he said, vaguely admiringly.

Yuksom's primary export is stupas.

I adjourned to the Gupta Restaurant next door. The 14 year old girl who was manning the counter smiled at me when I walked in. They were used to people coming starving and smelling awful. I ordered vegetable curry and scrambled eggs and chapati. I devoured it as if I had been starved.

I headed back to the hotel for a shower. It was time to confront The Toenail.

I took off my boot. My toenail was not fully lodged in the bed but was instead wiggling around whenever I poked it. I found it kind of fascinating on a scientific level. There wasn't much pain, but the visible horror of the thing -my pink-painted toenail, slightly chipped - was unnerving. I wrapped it up in a bandage and tried not to think about it. What a girl would look like in a pair of strappy heels witthout a big toenail. "Oh, but I lost it trekking in Sikkim," I'd say, tipping my tumbler of Makers to whoever addressed me on the matter. And they'd still think it was disgusting.

After my shower, I felt bound and determined to walk around Yuksom and do some Travel Reporting. Except I couldn't wear my boots again until my toenail decided if it was or was not going to drop off. I put on some sandals, and although my legs had decided they were totally over the whole "bending" thing,

A little history on Yuksom seems apropo, and so here it is. Yuksom was Sikkim's first capital, before Gangtok, due to its closer proximity to Tibet, formerly the region's chief power, and was established all the way back in 1642 by three Tibetan lamas on an evangelizing mission. They located and crowned the nations' first Chogyal or "religious King," Phuntsog Namgyal, who they apparantly happened upon while he was churning milk in his residence in Gangtok. They took him here (strategically located as it is), crowned him,and began Sikkim's formal tradition of leadership - the nation prior to this time being a rather loosely arranged and hard-to-get to assortment of villages, towns, and small holdings.

. The Chogyal dynasty would continue to rule Sikkim up until the time of its (voluntary) joining-up with India. Yuksom happens to contain the coronnation site of Sikkim's old kings, called "The Throne of Norbugang," which sounds quite exotic indeed (except I couldn't find it). There's also Sikkim's supposedly oldest monastery (established in 1701).

Yuksom, being the base-city for attempts on Khangchendzonga (why does everyone spell this differently) and a stop on Sikkim's buddhist pilgrimage circuit, is also a bit of a tourist town, albeit in Sikkim's shockingly muted way. (There's a shop to buy trekking gear! And hotels at different price points!). Still, the fact that it requires a 6 hour and jolty jeep-ride to get here over indifferent roads from the already remote capital of Gangtok has kept it what it is - about two steps up from medieval and really quite incredibly charming. An ancedote I like to trot out about Sikkim is that it is the only place I have ever been where I was unable to purchase a souvenir t-shirt. (I am amused by the fact that Wikipedia informs that Yuksom is "well connected by road" with Gangtok. Define "well connected", guys.)

I walked through town some and looked at things, a bit painfully, but walking (maybe stretching out the muscles). There were dhzo and kids tending them, people going to work or going back from work, and people looking at me looking at them. I found a monastery. Yuksom has a lot of them and they all seem to be empty most of the time. I couldn't even figure out the proper name of this one. I wish someone would tell me. Hint.

Bunch of kids and women were sweeping this one up. It was a charming little scene.

I manfully then hiked to Yuksom's main attraction, which is the place where the King of Sikkim was traditionally crowned. Or I tried. There was nothing in the way of signage. I was looking at a hillock with some gravel around it and trying to figure out where to go for a bit, and then I walked up a hill, and then my goddamn shoe broke. Snap.

I'm standing there with a wonky toenail and I have no shoe and my legs won't bend. I feel so fucking sorry for myself.

The very nice Yuksom residency.

Some little girls walk by and laugh at me, but politely. "What happen, miss?" one said.
I held up the shoe. "Shoe broke," I said.
"Oh," she said. The conversation ended. I sighed. I walked with one shoe down the gravely road. It hurt. It was India, of course, and that meant that I was going to find a shoe for sale somewhere or another, maybe even by the side of the road if I got lucky - but I was totally demoralized. I bought another pair of flip-flops. I have bought more Auxilary Flip Flop Pairs then I can count while traveling.

I sat in the hotel for a while and slept a little and then I somehow got up the energy to go out again - it was getting darkish - and I decide to go up to the monastery located rather conveniently right outside of my guesthouse, caled the Ngadhak Changchub Choling Monastery.

Yuksom is an old town and one that is positively besotted with stupas and monasteries, which is interesting since there are by no means that many people - the population is a shade over 1,000. The monastery was located up a rather foggy hill through the forest, and I walked up it, and appreciated the stands of thick high altitude trees (so different from India's lowlands, so different from the Cambodia where I was headed). The monastery appeared deserted, or at least shut for the evening, and I didn't go up and rap on the door - I stood there and looked at it rather blankly for a moment. And it began to rain (but I had my umbrella, as one must in Sikkim) and I walked carefully down the hill on my wonky and unbending legs, nodding politely to a group of young boys who passed by, all of them huddled under a single black umbrella. It was almost dinner time anyhow.

I got picked up by one of Kumar's friends, who was supposed to be overseeing me. "I take you to this restaurant, and I pay for your food," he explained, as this was technically part of what I'd paid for. His English was good, and we chatted as we walked there. When we got there, a friend of his was also at the restaurant, taking his evening tea as all Sikkimese and indeed all Indians are duty-bound to do. It turned out he managed the fanciest hotel in Yuksom (which really was very pretty inside). We all began talking about Sikkim, the tourism trade, life here.

For some reason, I asked him about rescue procedures here. Kiran and I had previously had this nice idea that trekking in Sikkim was kind of like trekking in Nepal, in that there were helicopters and hospitals and emergency systems in place if something really grotty happened.
"So what about rescue up here?" I asked, as my chicken curry arrived.
He looked at me curiously. "Rescue? There is no rescue up here. The only rescue we have here is going back down. Last season - very rough. Tourists getting sick, not having the right equipment, getting AMS. Safety is important. A good guide is most important. Someone who can make decisions, at the right time, fast. I've seen people die up there on the mountains, get sick. A good guide is the most important thing."
I stared at him for a moment. "No one told us that before we went up."
He nodded and smiled. "Well, yeah."
I felt both terrified and infinitely more hardcore then i previously had felt.

We chatted a bit more and I adjourned to the hotel because I was dog-tired and I wanted to rejigger the nest of bandages on my toenail. I hoped Kiran had made it up all right and had seen the damned mountains. I was trying not to be incredulous about the prospect of my epic, planned share jeep-journey to Darjeeling the next day. I slept okay.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Going Down to Tsokha, Why I Won't Climb Everest

We made another attempt on The View, this morning. Another early wake-up, another round of pulling on dampish boots in the dark and struggling out of sleeping bags and pushing up the hill. None of us expecting much, this time, although it wasn't raining outside. The clouds were coming over. I walked about halfway up the hill and the clouds were still there, and I wanted breakfast. I was demoralized. Kiran kept pushing upwards. I stayed about halfway up and debated about going all the way up, if I hadn't given up hope. Then, the whooping started. THEY'RE THERE THEYR'E THERE I could hear people yelling.

And there they were, the mountains, the View of Views. A whole 15 minutes of them, I guess. I heard the shouting from up the hill and got committed and then I started running (like a damned fool) right up the side of the hill through the thicket and missed the trail entirely, I just wanted to get up their and see. And I did, one way or another, crashing through all kinds of native vegetation, and I made it to the ridge and I looked. I had a lot of stickers in my pants but I didn't much care. And that was the view. The clouds closed again, and the weather closed in again. It looked like it could go eitherway, but I had made my call. I was going down, Kiran was staying.

Kiran lent me 1000 rupees, or around 25 dollars. We stood around as the porters loaded up the horses and got everything together for the journey to Goecha La. The mist and the general attitude of the thing reminded me of the Breaking of the Fellowship. I said something about this. Kiran laughed. At least we were both nerds. "We'll see each other in Darjeeling," I said, confidently. And we waved goodbye and headed in opposite directions. I went to meet the porter who was going down with me.

The porter and I regarded each other with polite interest. We were stuck with each other for the next couple of days. He was probably my age, thin and lanky and not much taller then me with long hair, like most Sherpa boys. He spoke no English and I spoke no Nepali: this was going to be a relationship built pretty much entirely upon walking.

I like to think I surprised him with how fast I moved but I probably didn't - but in any case, we kept up a good clip. We both had a single goal in mind, and that was Yuksom and the comforts (such as they were) of civil society. We wanted to get there as fast as possible and damn anything that got in our way.

The next couple of days would turn into a bit of a game between us, I guess. Kumar would choose the safest way to get up the trail or avoid a yak or cross a waterfall: the Sherpa kid would choose the fastest, and that was the way I liked best myself, a habit that (I could tell) drove Kumar ever forwards into madness. Kumar took the clearly defined and cut trail: We took switchbacks, hopping over roots and twisting our ankles just so to land on rocks in just the right way. We cut through lines of horses and cut slightly more delicately through lines of yaks. Mud was a minor annoyance and so was the occasional mist of rain. We trotted instead of walked, and people going uphill or downhill laughed at us and waved.

I stopped for a bit at the small shrine I'd walked to, dejected, in the rain the day before. The sun was coming out and the prayer flags had dried out and were blowing, just a little, in the sun. It was very beautiful and you could see the plains stretching out for God knows how far below. I turned around and took a few photographs of the mountains behind me, which looked gentle and almost European in the easing, morning light, projecting the illusion of pistes and sky shacks somewhere over the next horizon. (Maybe someday. But it will not be for a long time.)

We made Tsokha fast. It was, after all, pretty much all downhill. (Should I add here that I hate going downhill? Going uphill means you're pretty much grounded in one plain, it's easy to keep your balance, your knees don't jam up. It's you and your windpower, that's all, you against a welt of mud and slime. It's simple. Going downhill, especially in the shocking steepness of the Himalaya, requires a great deal of attention, flexibility, and coordination - you're jumping as much as you're walking, you're carefully gauging the weight of your pack and what your shoes can take, you're considering the relative slipperyness and pointiness of the rocks around you, all these things are matters of great releavance when going downhill. It tires my mind out. And my knees.)

Tsokha again, that little medieval village, and the rest-house again. It looked the same as we had left it, except the mud had dried up a little as the rain was not bad that day. I even had my own little cell to myself again, complete with all the empty beer bottles and the thing that approximated a mattress and a small, hopeful pin-up of a view of the mountain range. I laid out my things and debated what the rest of the day would look like it. It was only around noon.

The Indian men were laying out lunch on the lawn in front of the hut, and I wandered down to talk to them. I was technically to take my meals at one of the village's two habitations, or that was the arrangement I think Kumar had explained to me, but they were feeling friendly. "No, come sit with us," they said. "We have got lots of food."
They had freshly made papad and curries and daal and eggs and stir-fried spam (good at altitude) and a lot of of hot tea and coffee. We all ate voraciously, with our hands, as one does in India. It felt terribly civilized.

We went up to the little tea-shop after and drank chang, the region's beloved millet beer. It is drunk out of wood sections and is made of fermented bits of millet, as one would expect, and is drunk with a straw jammed to the bottom because the millet is still in there. It is intermittently topped up with lukewarm water out of a jug. It is not a drink for those with an aversion to dirty water.
"My, you made it fast," the Kashmiri man said. "No one should ever say a beautiful girl is not strong." They were from Pune and had brought a selection of regional snack mixes along, which we were all sharing.
"Yes, strong like Sherpa," Sanjay Sherpa said, grinning. I thought this was among the best compliments I had ever recieved.
"Sanjay saved my life, a couple of times," the Kashmiri man observed. "He did it on Everest, and he also did it on Annapurna." Sanjay demurred modestly, but he went on. "Yes, I was very tired and very cold, and had twisted my ankle. It was after I had summited Everest. He supported me, and got me down the mountain."

"Yes, he did," the oldest man said.
"But that was long ago, of course, when I was younger. Now, this is all Sanjay and I are up for. We have got fat." He said this in Nepali to the Sherpa too and he laughed long and hard. "We had our adventures."
"This is a pretty good adventure, even if you consider yourselves old men," I pointed out.
"I suppose so. Maybe you could try Everest sometime. You seem strong enough."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that," I said. "Even if I could, I don't think I'd want to."

(This was something I had debated often when I was younger, when I spent a lot of my free time reading books about mountaineering. The allure of people throwing themselves up against the unstoppable power of nature has never been lost on me. But you get older, you contextualize, you do your thinking. My mom and I were both avid watchers of that National Geographic show a couple of years back, which followed a group of people on a commercial Everest expedition.

I lost my taste for the thing then, I think. It was a bunch of people with a lot more money then sense (as in Into Thin Air), all on some sort of bizarre quest to test themselves against an inanimate object that didn't care about them, would eat them alive, and they would do this in front of the pleas of their loved ones and former-lives NOT to do it. They were immovable objects, and they didn't much care about anyone else around them, either - only getting to the top. Of course, I like dangerous things and I like living a (somewhat) more dangerous life then is the norm, but I'm not sure I'd pay 50,000 dollars for a canned chance at killing myself. If that makes any sense. Also, my mother would beat me to death.

A little after, the Dutch boys and the Pole showed up, having started a little later in the afternoon. In lieu of anything better to do, I sat with them and watched as they drank chang - I was trying to save my money, and did not partake - and we talked about nothing in particularly. The Pole was in high spirits. Somehow we got on the topic of Poland's notorious alcoholism. He did not confirm or deny. He noted: "I've only had vodka for breakfast once. When I was going to meet the former president of Poland, because I got an academic award. Apparently he was an alcoholic."

"Didn't most of your politicians, well, die in a plane crash last year?" I said.

"Well, this was the former-former president of Poland," he explained. "This one isn't dead."

"I see," I said.

"I met the man in his office, and it was quite early, and I hadn't eaten yet. 'You have done a good job,' he said. 'Have some vodka.' We did shots and talked some. I was very drunk with the former President of Poland and it was before breakfast."

I considered this. We all did. The Polish man, for his part, looked up conspiratorially from the chang, as if relating a dark secret. "Ahh, it's so good!" He repeated this action every five minutes or so. It was awfully endearing.

Dinner time rolled around. We were, to my chagrin, going to eat in the other shack in town, instead of the fierce chang-lady's house, the one who had an electric light powered by something or another. This was the shack that was occupied by a 14 year old boy and his dementia-affected grandmother. There may have been other family members in the picture around, but they were not in evidence. I was lumped in with the three boys, so we all filed into the small and smoky shack, and watched as the silent and somewhat startled looking 14 year old cooked us scrambled eggs and daal. I wished I could have just cooked since I am a better cook then the kid was, and I felt incredibly sorry for him. To be 14 years old in a medieval village, having to shoo your touched grandmother away from precipices, only a tabby cat and chickens and an occasional stream of trekkers to keep you company. It was a sad thought. The men were all drunk on chang and were not doing much thinking. I wished I had money for chang.

"We go down slow tomorrow," the Dutch guy said, sipping on his chang. "Maybe smoke a few joints in the woods, yeah?" He directed this at their guide, Bob the Sherpa. I thought of him as Bob the Stoner Sherpa because he was rarely without a joint, and was always inquiring if I wanted some whenever the conversation got quiet.

"Okay," Bob said, "We go down slow and smoke, that's cool." He was wearing pink pajama pants, and had the red eyes of the constantly stoned that I always see in my college friends. He had a Bob Marley t-shirt. Has weed overtaken chang as the young Sherpa's favorite past-time? It's not like it doesn't grow by the side of the road around here.

We adjourned to the chang lady's shack to hang out some. There were a few British people there, and I was happy to see another woman beside the chang lady in the general vicinity. We sat and talked about scuba-diving, for some reason, which seemed awfully incongrous at this altitude. Night-time was dark and bleak and muddy outside: I just wanted to sleep, mostly. I excused myself and flicked on my headlamp and tried to avoid the cow (out there in the darkness somewhere, with pointy horns) and got back to my little room.

The Indian men were having dinner inside the hikers shack when I walked in: they called me into the room. "We've got chicken," they said, laughing. They were referring to spam. It still tasted good. That was my second dinner. I sat with them for a while and listened to them talk about Indian politics (as is inevitable), and then I really did adjourn to my small room. It was quiet as hell outside, and less musty then Dzongri had been. At least I was getting somewhere.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sitting in a Hut And Doing Nothing: Here's Some History!

We had intended to set off for the Goecha La pass that day after our day of luxurious resting, and then we woke up, and it was raining. It was raining resolutely and in gray tones; it was raining as if it had been raining all night and had been raining since approximately the beginning of time; it was raining such that the yaks and horses had their heads down and looked shaggy and remorseful, and the paths outside the trekkers hut ran with little muddy creeks. "Fuck," I said, when I looked out the window. Kiran repeated something similar. We went outside in our boots and stood on the porch with holes on it and watched the rain come down on the horses fetlocks. We said "Fuck" again.

"So we stay another day," Kumar said. I think he was trying to sound positive but I wasn't really sure.

We went back inside, and Kiran and I looked around our habitation, which was sweaty and (as we suspected) beginning to mold, and we considered another day of being damp and chilly and playing card games we were not very good at, and reading books our brains were too addled to allow us to recall much of, and mostly, sitting around and staring at the wall. And we sighed. And we stayed. I had begun my own addition to the graffiti wall. It was a drawing of an angry yak, and my name. It was beginning to get very detailed. We had breakfast. We talked to each other about nothing in particular. We had lunch.

The Spanish would wander into the room occasionally to get something and cluck about our living situation. They all had what seemed to be an endless array of stretchy trekking clothing. "Ah, these huts are awful. Here - we, we live like gypsies. It is ridiculous!" one woman muttered to me, as she dug through her damp gear. I lay back on my mat - slipping in and out of sleep was what I'd done all day - and thought of what we'd been told back in Gangtok, by the man who owned the trekking company, who was kind enough to warn us. "Tourists say...anything can happen at altitude. To sleep at altitude, it's 100% difficult. When the hut is's 110% difficult."

I went for a walk after lunch. I went for a walk not because it was a good day for a walk - it was an awful one - but because I had not walked anywhere much then to the bathroom in about two and a half days and felt I was going insane. The rain pelted on my rainjacket and ran down my back, and turned the gravely path I was walking on into a little stream. The rhododendron forest was red and moist and foggy, and looked like no landscape I'd ever seen before, which was something.

Small and dampish birds occasionally flew from tree to tree, and about a half a mile from camp, I couldn't hear anyone or see anyone at all. For some reason, I found myself at the crest of the peak we had walked up to reach Tsokha, the one with the little rock stupa and the prayer flags on it, which were sodden and still in the wet. I stared at it for a bit. I got rained on. There was a view to break the heart out there in the mist, but I couldn't see it. No epiphanies came.

I began walking back.

To my surprise, I saw the Indian men, the older group, and they were all kitted out and going in the opposite direction, and their pack animals were with them. They had been camping a half-mile away from us or so, at the Kanchendenzonga base camp, and I had not seen them in a couple of days. "

"Are you going back?"I asked, surprised. The Kashimiri man with the sharp grey eyes was out front, like always, so I addressed him.

"Yes, we are going back. The weather is awful."

"Our guide told us that one of the bridges has washed out. And he thinks the weather isn't likely to break anytime soon," the oldest man, with the white hair and glasses, added.

Sonjay Sherpa, the guide, nodded in agreement and looked amused. He didn't speak English.

"You're giving in?" I said, amazed. I was thinking of their experiences on Everest.

"There's no point in waiting around. If the rain gets worse, perhaps more bridges will wash out. And then we will really be trapped here," the Kashmiri looking man said. "That's no good for anyone." (I recalled the only-recently repaired and rickety suspension bridge I had walked over a few days before, and the raft of debris and shattered, huge trees caught up against it. This worried me).

"You'd better turn back, too," the oldest man said. The other two came up the trail behind them in their slickers.

"We'll consider it, " I said.

I walked back down the trail considering it. I was bored, that was the main problem, damned bored, and I didn't want to sleep in a creek bed either, not for another day. We had tents, that was true, but I was bored with sitting in tents. I liked walking, and I walked the challenge and the pain of it, but the sitting around in tents - it was driving me up the wall. What if we made for the Goecha La, and it just kept raining? What if we made the Goecha La and the view, and there was mist all over it? And I thought of weird and rickety Darjeeling too, a city I'd always wanted to see, and knew that we had to be in Calcutta by so-and-so-day. We might only get a day in all to see Darjeeling. And we'd spend it staring at rain, and canvas. And what was there to prove? A lot, of course - my honor, my strength, my ability to endure the scent of molding socks. I couldn't be a coward. But I could be logical.

And how the hell could I talk Kiran into it? I was pretty sure I couldn't. I'd have to go down myself. And I was out of money, too. About $30 bucks to my name.

Though that would also be an adventure.

They brought us popcorn again, around 4:00 PM. This was the absolute highlight of our day. Kiran and I didn't talk to each much, but I think this was more a result of our ever decreasing-brain function and less one of social tension. My thoughts had become small, and stupid, and concerned primarily with mud.

I read a little bit, or tried to, of a book one of the guides had brought up. It was about the mythology and traditions attached to the Kanchenzonga mountain, and it was fascinating stuff.

Aleister Crowley looking curiously like certain friends of mine in Facebook photos.

The truly bizarre Aleister Crowley, a British occulist, mystic, and "magician" headed a 1905 first attempt on the famously difficult mountain. The attempt was unsucessful but makes for mighty good reading. Three men were killed in an avalanche during that expedition: although one local noted, "The demon of Kangchenjunga was propitiated with the sacrifice" and urged Crowley to turn back, he decided not to risk it. He headed for home.

The Crowley account of the ascent, as I read this (a bit belatedly) mirrors pretty much all of my own opinions. Crowley on leeches: "A single leech will kill a pony. It works its way up into the nostril and the pony simply bleeds to death. Hence the Anglo-Indian proverb. "A jok's a jok [Hindustani for leech] but a jok up your nose is no jok."

On the dampness: "On getting into a dak baghla and standing stripped in front of a roaring fire, one expects to get dry. But no! the dampness seems to be metaphysical rather than physical. The mere removal of the manifestations of the elements of water do not leave one dry. But one used to obtain a sort of approximation to dryness by dint of fires; and of course we were provided with waterproofs specially constructed for that abominable climate. One morning I timed myself; after taking every precaution, it was eight and one half minutes from the door of the baghla before I was dripping wet."

Things don't change much up here.

The mountain was not summited until 1955, in an expedition led by Joe Brown and George Band: according to a request by Sikkim's king, they did not actually set foot on the very top of the mountain in deference to local religious belief. (I'm incredulous about this, mainly because, who exactly was up there to stop them?)

FUCK yeah.

Naturally, Kanchenzonga has a healthy array of yeti or "demon" myths - though the beasts are referred to as "sokpha" here, in the native tongue. One of the Western world's earliest yeti accounts from the mysterious and independently wealthy N.A Tombazi, a Greek photographer and geologist who supposedly spotted one in the area near to Dzongr in 1925, and also viewed its tracks. The natives told him in no uncertain terms that they had come across a "demon," but Tombazi, for his part, was not convinced, suspecting he had seen a traveling and poorly attired hermit instead of a bona-fide mythical beast- though he apparantly had misgivings later in life.

A yeti was supposedly seen around in Sikkim in 2004, according to this blog, in a remote region known as Zaluk. Rev your engines, cryptozoologists.

I spent most of my time asleep because my dreams at altitude were surrealist horror-shows, and they were much like watching television. The repeat of all I'd been or had ever been or will ever be played as if on a tape recorder, and conflated together, and the smell of hut-funk in my nose. I would imagine having long conversations with family and friends that I loved. They would ask me why I was here and I would say "Well, it's a long story." In one, I am in the sitting room in Tampa, where my grandparent's live and looking around the room, which is about the same as always but with the minor structural differences implied by dreams. My grandparents are there, or maybe it is my mother. "But wait," I say. "This has to be a dream. How did I get from Yuksom to Florida so fast? Also, I left my computer in the hotel there. I need that computer." They look at me, as if to say, "Yes, you got us."

And I woke up on the hard floor of a trekkers hut in Dzongri. A victim of my own incredulity.

It was a nice dream, too.

"If the weather doesn't break - soon - then I'm heading back tomorrow," I told Kiran, in one of our moments of mutual awakeness.

"You don't want to see the Goecha La?" he said, surprised. Everything that Kiran was at the moment, or at least it seemed that way to me, was entirely committed to seeing the Goecha La.

"I do, but not if it's being rained on. I mean - I want to see Darjeeling. More. Or, longer. I don't want to spend all my time being rained on."

"A little rain..."

"But still. I met the Indian guys, you know. They said their guide didn't think the weather would break, and that more bridges would wash out. It might be prudent." I knew this wouldn't work on Kiran, who had got the mountain madness thing going on, right down to the core of him, but I threw it out there.

"No, no, no. I'm going up. I don't care." He was thinking of setting up his camera, and getting the perfect shot. I was thinking of Darjeeling and weird little alley-ways to nowhere and dumpling shops, and tea plantations. We were on diametric courses, and had opposite goals. Something had to give. I decided that I would give it one more morning - and I was holding little hope - and then down I'd go again.

I arranged it all with Kumar. "Okay, so I send one porter down with you," he said. One guy to (embarrassingly) carry my big backpack. We'd put up at Tsokha for the night, and we'd get our meals on credit one-way-or-another from the terrifying village lady who served up millet beer to whoever came in the door. It would probably be simple enough. Kiran lent me some more money. We spent another night at altitude, and we played cards with the Germans (or observed, for me, who could never bother to learn), and I think we finished off most of the Charteuse booze Kiran had brought up in lieu of anything to do. I was ready to be gone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Which We Sit in a Hut And Do Nothing, And Maybe Nerves Fray Slightly

This is approximately when things got off the rails, up in Sikkim. A little. Not that we got eaten by yetis or that one of us fell off a glacier or lost a leg, or something of that nature. More that we ended up spending two days in a hut at very high altitude with absolutely nothing to do, other then watch with some curiosity as the altitude affected our minds and the functioning of the human organism, and how awful a small and leaking hut can smell when 40 people are living in it. This was all part of the Learning Experience. I do not know how interesting these next two days will be for you to read about, unless you are interested in the particular kind of delirium that comes from high-altitude boring. But no one went insane. We played cards, and looked at the wall, and timed our lives around meals.

Kumar shook us awake that first morning in Dzongri at the proscribed hour of 4:30 AM, and Kiran and I groggily got out of our sleeping bags, switched on our headlamps (finding them somewhere in the human effluvium the hut had become), and we put on our shoes and we headed towards the hill, the hill outside of Dzongri that theoretically offers the best possible view of the Kanchendenzonga and her sisters. It was a steep and rocky climb, right up the top of a ridge. But it was short, and we were still half-asleep and slightly shocked by the suddenness of our waking: Walking was as if walking in a dream, and as we walked the light grew stronger, and stronger. The German boys and the Israeli boy were walking with us too, and we said little to each other, because we were not awake. It was mostly about going upwards, and keeping our eyes on the narrow and spiky path the trail took.

We reached the summit of the hill, eventually: We could see across what was a great valley, and we could see the dim and ghostly outlines of the mountains behind a large and slowly lightening stand of clouds. And at least it was not raining. The View, the View of Views of the Kanchendenzonga range and its sisters, as we had been told, would come when the sun was well and truly up. We trudged over to the viewing area, which had a stupa built of rocks and prayer flags, decaying and multicolored around it. Here we were going to wait. Kiran eagerly pulled out his one legged tripod and mounted his camera on it and began grimly twiddling away at its settings.

As for myself, I wanted to sit down, except there were almost no rocks to sit down on up here (which was strange), and a lot of dampish moss and gravel besides, and so the Israeli boy and I ended up sharing a small one. We were both, I think, a little cynical about the whole thing. "The clouds don't look like they'll move," the Israeli boy said.
"The clouds don't," I agreed. We both put our chins on our knees.

(Kiran, standing with his tripod and looking intently at the horizon: They Will, he was saying to himself. They Will.)

The clouds began to part, a little, and grow less dense - a patch of fresh blue sky could be seen in between them. The clouds were blowing faster now, as the morning broke, and the Israeli boy and I both were looking up now, considering getting to our feet.

Then a moment, a single one. The clouds diminished just enough and there it was, the whole thing. The Great Mountain, that terrible and jagged pyramid and covered in snow, and its black and snowless sisters arranged around it, morbid and tough. I said "Wow" and so did the rest of us. Kiran snapped photos, over and over, in a state of pure aesthetic bliss.

This lasted for approximately one and a half minutes. Maybe two.

And back the clouds came, darker then before, and you could see nothing again, other then a dark shape that might have been a mountain.

"Well, fuck," the Israeli boy said.

And we walked down the mountain again. I chatted with the Israeli boy as we walked downhill, watching our feet carefully. "I wanted it to last longer, you know," he said. "I wanted to get a picture of myself naked in front of it."

"Naked," I repeated.

"I like to take photos of myself naked in front of things," he said. This was apparently fairly normal. (I would learn later that young Israelis, post military service, are indeed very fond of taking naked photos of themselves in front of the world's great wonders, and here he was, living out the dream! Or, trying to).

By the time we had had breakfast, it had begun to rain again. This was our Rest Day. And that was exactly what we did. We enjoyed the resting at first, being able to lean against the cabin walls and stare off into space and feel our muscles un-tense a little - that was good.

But the air was thin and I could barely focus enough to read, and our conversation was lagging - all of us in the cabin ended up in the Israeli boys quadrant, after a while, nattering on about not-much, Kiran and I watching them play endless rounds of cards. They made us popcorn. We ate it. They made us lunch. We ate it. We weren't cold, not exactly, but the mist outside was all pervasive, and seeped under your skin, and made you think of sunny days and beaches. The Spanish had decamped to a dining tent set out outside to do whatever it was they were doing, and I was too embarrassed to creep around the side and beg off some wine and Manchego from them, again. So we sat. I napped, a lot, and I enjoyed the feverish high-altitude dreams again. Sometimes I think they explain Tibetan art, the colors and the whirl and thrust of it, the way people dream at altitude.

Kiran took this one. This is what cooking in a tent looks like!

Around 4:00 PM, three more boys came in. A tall, bearded Polish scientist who resembled Abraham Lincoln and grinning a lot, and two Dutchmen, and all of them soaked to the bone. They stumbled in the door, and appeared to be led by a Sherpa I had seen around in Yuksom a little before. His name, or what he told us his name was, was Bob.

Kumar came up and looked them over, smiling a lot. "Ah, it full," he said. (Which the room was). Kiran and I intervened. "No, no, we can make room!" we said, gesturing expansively over our little kingdom of bedrolls and slowly molding socks. "We can make room!"

The Polish guy set out his bedroll in a small and tentative corner not big enough for his 6'6 frame, and the two Dutchmen went into the other room. They joined the conversation soon enough: like everyone, somewhere in between or in the middle of Higher Education and off to see the world and shake the academia off of themselves.

The Pole was especially voluble and friendly, always grinning a lot: the altitude agreed with him, he'd done some mountaineering. They served us dinner and tea, again. We all drank a lot of tea but we regretted it, because that meant a trip to the outhouse, which was a few yards away and down a squishy and horse-shit strewn trail.

The outhouse was equipped with a small running creek that performed all sanitary services and made a pleasing rushing-water sound, but it was getting there that was the bitch, and so was the toilet paper. At least Kiran and I had packed enough. We tried to hide it from everyone else. The mood, I felt, was growing a little too outcasts-stuck-in-a-raft. "You hear anything about the weather?" I asked Kumar.

"We know tomorrow," he said, carefully.

"I wonder if the bridge is still washed out," I said, mostly to myself.

"I'm going up," Kiran said. "To the Goecha La." This was a statement and not a question.